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Q From Pat Walton, Bath, UK: BBC Radio 4 this morning (Sunday 13 Aug) reported that following the death of Sir Robin Day last week, his London club is now looking for a new curmudgeon — a semi-official post held, and apparently relished, by Sir Robin. Listeners were asked to submit possible candidates. My Collins dictionary gives ‘C16, of unknown origin’ for it. I’d be very interested in any further information about this lovely word.

A It is an excellent word. Its usual meaning is of a bad-tempered or surly person, hardly a description of Robin Day, who was one of the most witty and urbane people imaginable, despite his public persona as a ruthless television interrogator (but then, nobody would accept the post of curmudgeon if he really were one).

The problem, so far as your question is concerned, is that nobody has the slightest idea of where the word originated. It appears fully formed in 1577, as if out of the mists of the ages, with nothing to indicate where it comes from, or what its linguistic relatives are.

As a result, there have been many theories. The most famous is that of Dr Samuel Johnson; in his Dictionary of 1755 he quoted an unknown correspondent as suggesting that it came from the French coeur méchant (evil or malicious heart). This is now not considered at all likely. The note in Johnson’s dictionary is best remembered for the howling blunder it caused John Ash to perpetrate in 1775 in his New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language in which he suggested it came from coeur, unknown, and méchant, correspondent.

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Page created 09 Sep 2000